Avoiding PDM/PLM: the lengths engineers go to

Over the past few months, we’ve talked to a lot of engineers about how they share engineering data (like CAD files).  The biggest takeaway is that most engineers don’t use a specialized system to manage their data. Either they don’t have a system or what they do have is incompatible with what their customers need. So how do over 60% of CAD users get by without a traditional Product Data Management (PDM) or Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) tool?

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Managing and understanding the relationships between parts and assemblies in mechanical design requires a tool that understands those relationships.  If you’ve tried to get by without a PDM or PLM system, you’ve probably run into a number of challenges.

Sharing CAD files with Dropbox

Everybody loves Dropbox.  It gives us the secret ability to put our home documents on our work machine and vice-versa.  Its almost non-existent user interface just does what it’s supposed to do, whenever it can.  Using Dropbox with CAD seems like magic, as it stores every version you save.  What more could you want?

Dropbox is a great tool for CAD as long as you’re the only one working on the files and you don’t need to share those files with someone without CAD.  The fundamental problem with Dropbox is that it doesn’t work well when multiple users are working on CAD files at the same time.  If one user saves a file that another user has open for edit, it gets a new name.  Those “conflicted copies” require manual merging later, a situation more tedious than coordinating changes manually.  Therefore, the most common story we hear from teams that team tried using Dropbox is that the conflicted copy issue caused their directory to get out of control, so they gave up.

Pack-and-go zip files

Most CAD systems let you reference parts from all over your hard drive or network, which can make it difficult to share the files.  Even the most fastidious CAD users typically reference standard parts in a library folder that lives outside the working folder for the project.  To create archives, some CAD systems include a “pack-and-go” capability to gather all the needed files for an assembly and copy them to a new folder or zip archive.

But a pack-and-go file doesn’t actually help you share with others.  It’s great for backups, and many companies use it as a key part of their release process.  But what do you do with a 32 MB zip file?  Most email systems won’t let you send it. And if you did, the recipient gets a static picture of the files as they were when you zipped them up.  This doesn’t really help two engineers work on the same product at the same time.

CAD on shared drives

Many companies have a shared file server where everyone can add and delete files.  Some software, like Microsoft Office, locks the files when they are in use, giving users some simple security from overwriting each others’ data.  For simple documents without inter-file relationships, this approach can work.  It can also work for individual CAD users or teams that rarely need to work on the same files.

The biggest problem with shared drives is that if one person makes a mistake, it can impact the entire team.  As you add team members, the chances of tragedy increase.  This problem can be mitigated with a healthy backup regimen, but backups also add a layer of complexity and take time to restore.  And when many users have the same files open, overwriting each other’s files is a commonplace problem and another cause of lost work.  If you need to collaborate outside the firewall or restore old versions, however, shared drives are almost useless (and drive the IT team crazy).

Accessing CAD without the software

None of the solutions mentioned above deliver anything other than native CAD files, so you still need CAD or installed viewers to share CAD parts outside the core team.  One of the biggest pain points we hear about from engineers who use these tools is they have to spend a lot of time creating images, movies, and 3D graphics exports to share results and document changes.  We also hear a lot of stories about when something went wrong and how many days or weeks it took to put everything back to normal, if they could fix it at all.

What’s the best solution for CAD data management?

Existing data management solutions clearly aren’t working for most engineers.  Less than 40% buy expensive PDM/PLM systems and many report they don’t use them.  Those without specialized systems waste endless hours redoing work and sorting out file conflicts.  Engineers need a system that:

  • Works how they work – Don’t make the user move all their files or change their daily process.

  • Allows users to stay out of each other’s way – When an engineer opens a file, others should know not to work on it.

  • Doesn’t create extra work – An engineer told me yesterday “No one wants to fill out a [major PLM] form every time they start a project”.

  • Makes secure sharing easy – Engineers need to share CAD with non-engineers.

  • Is easy to deploy and maintain – The upfront expense and ongoing IT requirements of traditional systems make them unworkable more many mid-sized companies.

So what to do?  Stay tuned…

  • http://dexma-plm.com/ Alexey

    “When an engineer opens a file, others should know not to work on it.” – why can not several engineers work on the same file simultaneously ?

  • http://grabcad.com Lindsey Christensen

    Hi Alexey, thanks for your question.
    If multiple engineers are working on the same file at the same time, then none of them have an up-to-date file. They are wasting time making changes on the same version and all the work will need to be redone.
    -Lindsey

  • http://www.grabcad.com Blake Courter

    Indeed, Alexey. Most CAD systems today do not let users work on the same part at the same time. This behavior is not true in other industries. For example, software engineers have decent tools to work on the same file at the same time.

    Perhaps someday, a CAD vendor will make a tool that doesn’t have this limitation. In the mean time, we are limited to working within the limitations of the CAD system.

  • http://dexma-plm.com/ Alexey

    Lindsey and Blake, I appreciate your answers. If we put aside common practice when only one engineer works on a file at once and imagine several engineers work on the same file at the moment. There is probability that in the end all of them will come up with their own file version and design. And project manager (or someone in charge) will have to make a decision which version to accept (better one) or and which to send for modifications. What do you think about this approach ? So the idea is – why not use the approach used as developers do ? Can (will) it work in engineering design ?

  • http://www.grabcad.com Blake Courter

    Hi Alexey,

    Currently, I don’t know of any CAD system that does a good job of letting users work on the same part independently and merge changes later. The goal of what we are doing right now is helping people get the most out of the CAD system they already have.

    I do think we can do a lot to help with the merges. For example, we could use our 3D compare function between the branches to be merged.